Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gig Review: Michal Prokop & Framus Five

Divadlo Archa
19th December 2008

Christmas in Prague means many things to many people. To some it means the smell of mulled wine and roasting chestnuts drifting over from bustling market stalls. To others it means choosing an oversized tree and hauling it home on the tram. To many it means trying not to fall into the tanks of live carp when drunk. To us at Prague Jazz it means all of these and more, and in the more we must include Michal Prokop’s Christmas gigs. A full length concert interwoven with special guests is what we’ve come to expect, and unlike many under-tree promises that turn out to be socks or hankies, it is never a disappointment.

Before the emails of complaint come flying in, we know that strictly (or even loosely) speaking Prokop isn’t a jazzer. But within his blend of rock, blues, soul and folk there are some jazzy moments. In his band are the virtuoso violinist Jan Hrubý and a guitarist called Luboš Andršt who can play a bit: real music played by real musicians. Their intermittent work together over the years has an iconic place in Czech popular music, and their current performances are joyous and exuberant affairs. With his other lives in politics and television Prokop could easily have turned into a caricature, a one-man “celebrity” variety show. Instead, when he takes to the stage, he is still 100% musician.

This concert not only celebrated Christmas but also the sixtieth birthday in 2008 of both Hrubý and Andršt. It was therefore fitting that they opened the show, together with Prokop who turned sixty two years ago, as their “unplugged” acoustic trio. Normally only seen during short sets at festivals, it was an unexpected treat to hear their staples “Rain” (J. Feliciano) and “Miss July” (P. Skoumal, P. Šrut).

There is usually some young talent showcased during these concerts, and this year it was the turn of Jana Šteflíčková. A folky songstress with a strong voice, she impressed the audience with her acoustic guitar technique, providing her own percussion with some hefty string-slapping. She is definitely worth watching out for in the future.

Next up were Kukulín, Celtic folk-rockers led by none other than Jan Hrubý, who hardly left the stage all evening in what was to be a marathon performance. He is never the most boring person to watch onstage, enthusiastically transferring his thoughts and feelings to the strained strings like Paganini on lager. As bandleader he was even more animated than ever, on his feet and jigging away through some stunning solos and euphoric ensemble playing. It was hard to believe that he, as with Prokop and Andršt, could possibly be sixty.

More defiance of the years came next, with the emergence of two more legends of Czech music, singer-songwriter Vladimír Mišík and veteran Blue Effect guitarist Radim Hladík. Another two gentlemen who by standard convention should be telling us to keep the noise down rather than making the noise themselves, they teamed up with Hrubý for a rousing blast of “Šmajdák a ploužáky” (V. Mišík, V. Merta) before being joined onstage by Prokop and Andršt. Collectively the five musicians have over two hundred years of playing experience, which is why they sound so damn good. An extended blues number with solos all round ended the first half of the concert, with the crowd enthralled by the sight and sound of the some country’s best known musicians jamming together.

After an interval to rid the stage of all extraneous gear it was time for Prokop to take the stage with his electric band for the main part of the concert, although few would argue that we’d had our money’s worth already. Everyone was thoroughly warmed up so classics like “Kolej Yesterday” (P. Skoumal, P. Šrut) and the rousing anthem “Blues o spolykaných slovech” (M. Prokop, J. Žáček) went down a storm. As is now usual a bulk of the set came from the Poprvé naposledy album (2006). Widely seen as Prokop’s renaissance and return to the musical first division after his time in politics, the newer tracks from this record sit easily with the older material. “Virtuální realita” (L. Andršt, P. Šrut), a powerful straight-ahead rocker came off especially well, as did the violin-driven “Zloději času” (P. Skoumal, P. Šrut).

Rhythm was provided by Wimpy Tichota on bass and Pavel Razím on drums, a pairing who work together often and keep things both innovative and tight. It would have been nice to see these two younger statesmen of the Prague jazz scene given some room to solo, but that honour seemed to be reserved for those who were sixty or over. They were all joined for one song, “Hotel u přístavu (L. Andršt, P. Šrut)”, by young jazz singer Markéta Foukalová. Duetting with Prokop like on the album original, they exchanged lines while Luboš ran honey-sweet jazz guitar phrases behind them.

The finale was an explosive sprawl through the talents of great instrumentalists. It had been a long and fun night, and it is fair to say that not everyone concerned was entirely sober, and it was Christmas and time to rock. Andršt led the way with a delicious slide solo at the end of Loučení (P. Skoumal, P. Šrut), then we had the two usual blues numbers, “Boom Boom” (J. L. Hooker) and Hoochie Coochie Man” (W. Dixon). Both contained furious duels between guitar and violin, underneath which pulsated a churning blues groove pumped out by Tichota and Razím. Prokop’s attempts to end the instrumental section and finish his lyrics were amusingly frustrated by the soloists who for a long time couldn’t quite bring themselves to quit. The encore of “Noc je můj den” (L. Andršt, M. Bláha), was even more wonderfully chaotic with the guest appearance of Radim Hladík. If two soloists can cause trouble for a bandleader trying to control things then three of them are a nightmare. The rolling melody turned into a battle for the best lick of the night that only ended when the house lights were put on and everyone else was leaving the stage. The winner of this contest was undoubtedly…

Well, the winner was us really, the audience treated to the sight and sound of such luminaries playing together and playing with a free hand. It was a display of creativity rather than a recital of the script and, like the evening as a whole, a reminder that prolonged success in the industry need not kill off the spontaneity, creativity and excitement of making music. Technical skill, charismatic stagecraft, historic collaborations and emotional playing all combined to make a very special Christmas present for all who were there

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